It takes guts to admit when you’re wrong, so we’ve got to hand it to writer Jill Filipovic, who confessed in The Atlantic last month, “I was wrong about trigger warnings.” 

Filipovic writes that she used to believe disclaimers on top of articles on touchy subjects—trigger warning: sexual assault, and the like—“were sometimes necessary to convey the seriousness of the topics at hand.”

“We thought we were making the world just a little bit better,” she wrote. “It didn’t occur to me until much later that we might have been part of the problem.”

As trigger warnings became more commonplace, readers started demanding them for ever-more banal content. Saying a piece of legislation made Filipovic want to throw up prompted a request for an eating disorder trigger warning; photos of cats and dogs fighting elicited an appeal for a trigger warning about domestic violence. 

Once under the purview of certain feminist, left-wing spaces, trigger warnings began to proliferate, making their way by the early 2010s to college campuses, where they were embraced by the people preparing to shape our future. 

This coincided with a collective mental health crisis. Richard Friedman, a former student mental health expert at Cornell, told Filipovic he noticed a sharp uptick in students seeking help around 2016. 

He explained that there was “this sense of being harmed by things that were unfamiliar and uncomfortable. The language that was being used seemed inflated relative to the actual harm that could be done. I mean, I was surprised—people were very upset about things that we would never have thought would be dangerous.” 

Some complaints involved not traumatic experiences but suffering the indignity of hearing people make comments or share opinions that students didn’t like. This tracks with a recent survey that found a majority of students support reporting a professor over “offensive” comments. 

Increasingly, young people believe that their institutions owe them protection for any sort of emotional or psychological distress, Filipovic writes. This is largely why millennials don’t seem to care about the First Amendment, and Gen Z doesn’t seem to be much better.

Filipovic notes that isolation and the internet are also to blame for young people’s apparent fragility. “Part of the issue may be a social-media ecosystem that lets teens live within a bubble of like-minded peers and tends to privilege the loudest, most aggrieved voices; this kind of insularity can encourage teenagers to understand distressing experiences as traumatizing,” she says. 

Trigger warnings, social media silos, and too much alone time all contribute to young people feeling like they should not be exposed to any content that could potentially be distressing. This can tank their resilience and increase the likelihood that something as simple as encountering a conservative on the street becomes a “traumatic event.”

Filipovic rightly calls for community as a solution to the problem, but political polarization is an important factor, too. When all right-wingers are “fascists” and “bigots” and all left-wingers are “communists” and “groomers,” the world does sound pretty terrifying. Add to that the idea that “words are violence,” and we’re basically living in a war zone. 

The reality, of course, is not so bad, and the solution is simple: We must be willing to engage with ideas and people we dislike. We don’t need trigger warnings; we just need a little empathy and courage.